‘The Question’ – Senate Candidate Linda McMahon (Still) Can’t Answer It (complete 7-part series as a single post)

Last Monday this blog, in what eventually turned into seven parts, began a series headlined “Senate Candidate Linda McMahon Has No Good Answer to This Question.”

In her interview on NBC’s Today show on Thursday, Matt Lauer did not pose The Question.

In a profile on yesterday’s World News Saturday, ABC News did not pose The Question. An accompanying piece on the ABC News website mentioned The Question obliquely and quoted McMahon as acknowledging that it has taken her company, World Wrestling Entertainment, “a while to get into focusing on all these particular issues.”

The following adapts, as one long article, the content of our seven-part series.

Irvin Muchnick

+++++++++++++++++++

SENATE CANDIDATE LINDA McMAHON HAS NO GOOD ANSWER TO THIS QUESTION

Many Connecticut journalists covering the U.S. Senate candidacy of World Wrestling Entertainment’s Linda McMahon follow this blog. I take that as a compliment.

Some of them have told me that the information I’ve been putting out there is too dense. I take that as a challenge.

“We live in a sound-bite culture,” one reader pointed out. “Why don’t you simplify things? If you were a reporter in Connecticut and confronted Linda McMahon, what is the one question you would ask to put her on the spot?”

Here is the question:

Ms. McMahon, no fewer than ten performers from your 1991 WrestleMania show alone would go on to die before age 50. Factors seem to include recreational drug abuse; abuse of anabolic steroids, along with painkillers, depression and anxiety medication, and other prescription drugs; and brain damage caused by dangerous industrial stunts, such as slamming chairs off their heads. Why should the voters of Connecticut not be taking into account this disturbing record of occupational health and safety?

***

THE BODY COUNT

At WrestleMania VII, at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena on March 24, 1991, Dino Bravo lost a preliminary match to Kerry Von Erich.

On March 11, 1993, Bravo (real name Adolfo Bresciano) was murdered in a hail of bullets, gangland-style, at his home in Quebec. Bravo had run afoul of the mob for his role in a cigarette-smuggling ring. He was 44.

I must say that Vince and Linda McMahon do not deserve to be on the hook for this one.

===

Bravo’s WrestleMania opponent, Kerry Von Erich (real name Kerry Adkisson), was a walking advertisement of wrestling dysfunction. He was the most popular of the wrestling sons of Dallas wrestler-promoter Fritz Von Erich. One son died suddenly and mysteriously in 1984, probably from a prescription drug reaction, in his Tokyo hotel room at the start of a Japanese tour. Kerry was the third of three other brothers who would commit suicide over the next nine years.

(My 1988 Penthouse magazine article, “Born-Again Bashing with the Von Erichs,” was selected for the anthology Best Magazine Articles: 1988 and included in my 2007 book Wrestling Babylon.)

After a 1986 motorcycle accident, Kerry Von Erich performed with an amputated foot – a condition he hid by wearing wrestling boots even when he was showering.

In February 1992 federal drug agents, acting in concert with local cops, raided the dressing room before a World Wrestling Federation show in St. Louis. No drugs were uncovered in wrestlers’ bags, largely because word of the raid leaked ahead of time. In all likelihood, the agents were acting on a botched tip targeting Von Erich, who had been sent to drug rehab days earlier. Von Erich soon would be arrested in Texas on two felony counts of attempting to use forged prescriptions.

On February 17, 1993,Von Erich was indicted on a new drug charge. The next day he drove to his father’s ranch, where he borrowed a .44 caliber gun with which he fatally shot himself in the chest. Kerry Von Erich was 33.

===

Davey Boy Smith, along with his cousin Tom “Dynamite Kid” Billington, formed the legendary tag team “the British Bulldogs.” Billington, one of the most electrifying performers in wrestling history, retired young due to crippling ring injuries, and now lives in a wheelchair, on the dole, back in England.

Smith – who married and divorced the youngest sister of Canadian wrestling star Bret Hart, and later lived with the estranged wife of Hart’s older brother – defeated The Warlord at WrestleMania VII.

On May 18, 2002, Davey Boy Smith, a heavy steroid abuser, died of a heart attack in British Columbia. He was 39.

===

John Tenta, known as “Earthquake,” defeated Greg Valentine at WrestleMania VII. The huge Canadian-born Tenta was, at one time, a rare Westerner who broke into sumo wrestling in Japan.

On June 7, 2006, Tenta died after a long bout with bladder cancer. Steroid abuse has been linked with kidney and liver diseases and certain kinds of cancer. I have no information on whether this was a factor in the death of John Tenta, who was 43.

===

With his partner Joe Laurinaitis, known as “Animal,” Michael Hegstrand, known as “Hawk,” formed the Road Warriors, a hugely popular tag team. When they joined WWF, Laurinaitis and Hegstrand were called the Legion of Doom. (Laurinaitis is the brother of another wrestler, John Laurinaitis, now WWE’s vice president in charge of talent.)

At WrestleMania VII, the Legion of Doom beat the team of Hercules and Paul Roma.

Hegstrand was beset with drug and alcohol problems; that steroids were among the drugs, there is no doubt. He had a heart condition, arrythmia, that could cause his heartbeat to escalate alarmingly, as it did once when he was stricken on an airplane flight with other wrestlers.

On October 19, 2003, Michael Hegstrand died of a heart attack at his Florida home. He was 46.

===

Ray “Hercules” Fernandez, a member of the tag team the Legion of Doom defeated, died in his home in Florida on March 6, 2004, of an apparent heart attack. A heavy steroid abuser, he was 47.

===

Curt Hennig, who wrestled in the WWFas “Mr. Perfect,” lost by disqualification to the Big Boss Man at WrestleMania VII.

Hennig, a second-generation wrestler, died of acute cocaine intoxication in a Florida hotel room on February 13, 2003. He was 44.

===

The real name of the Big Boss Man was Ray Traylor. (Mike Benoit, the father of Chris Benoit, told me that notes Chris left behind indicated that his two best friends were Eddie Guerrero and Traylor.)

On September 22, 2004, Traylor died of a heart attack in Dallas. He was 41.

===

Brian Adams, under the name “Crush,” was part of the WWF tag team known as Demolition. At WrestleMania VII, Demolition lost to the team of Tenryu and Kitao.

Adams was a heavy steroid abuser. In 1995 he was arrested for purchasing steroids and owning an illegal stun gun. In 2003 he retired from the ring due to a spinal injury, after which he was addicted to painkillers. In the February 2007 raid on Internet gray-market steroid and growth hormone dealer Signature Pharmacy, Adams turned up on the customer list.

On August 13, 2007, Brian Adams died in his Florida home from an overdose of prescription medications. He was 44.

===

A t WrestleMania VII, Sherri Russell, “Sensational Sherri,” had the role of “manager” or second to Randy “Macho Man” Savage. Prior to managing, she was a top wrestler under the name Sherri Martel.

On June 15, 2007, Sherri Russell died at her mother’s home in Alabama. The cause was an overdose of oxycodone and other painkillers and prescription drugs. She was 49.

Ten days later Chris Benoit went on his double murder/suicide rampage in Georgia. During the federal prosecution of Dr. Phil Astin, Benoit’s personal physician, evidence emerged that Sherri was among many Astin patients from the ranks of pro wrestling. Last year Astin pleaded guilty to charges of over-prescribing; he is serving a ten-year sentence and also has been named in a civil wrongful-death suit filed by the family of Chris Benoit’s wife Nancy. Four of Astin’s wrestling patients are now dead: Sherri Russell, Nancy and Chris Benoit, and Michael “Johnny Grunge” Durham (who was found dead in his Georgia home in 2006, at age 39, from an overdose of muscle relaxers prescribed by Astin).

===

Also working at WrestleMania VII was “The Lovely Elizabeth” Hulette, the wife and former manager of Randy “Macho Man Savage” Poffo and Hulette broke up in 1992.

On May 1, 2003, Hulette was found dead in the Georgia home of another wrestler, Lex Luger. Hulette, who had mixed alcohol with many drugs, was 42.

Two weeks prior to Elizabeth’s death, Larry “Lex Luger” Pfohl had been arrested in a domestic dispute at their home. Two days after that incident, Pfohl was arrested for driving drunk while Elizabeth was in the car with him. And following her death and a search of the home, Pfohl was arrested and indicted on 14 counts of illegal drug possession; the drugs included both painkillers and steroids and growth hormone. After pleading guilty in 2005, Pfohl was fined and sentenced to probation. In 2007 he suffered  a stroke which left him paralyzed, and from which he has partially recovered.

[The original version of these posts overlooked Elizabeth Hulette as a performer at the 1991 WrestleMania – which actually would see 11, not ten, performers die before age 50. Thanks to blog reader Keith Harris.]

***

WWE TALENT CONTRACT

A WWE performer recently shared with me a copy of his contract, vintage mid-2000s. The relevant page for the purpose of this post can be viewed at http://muchnick.net/wwecontract.pdf.

Insiders tell me that the language here is boilerplate. Other wrestlers are invited to confirm this by sending me copies of their contracts. You can contact me discreetly at tips@muchnick.net.

I also will be talking with experts in entertainment law, liability waivers, and occupational health and safety. But first I want to discuss this contract from a layman’s perspective.

I have seen my share of contracts, mostly in publishing, where there can be extraordinary one-sidedness. For example, some newspaper and magazine publishers force freelance contributors to sign agreements in which they give away all future rights, trumping the defaults of copyright law. To give this power play that little extra oomph of knife-twisting comprehensiveness, such a clause might even specify “all rights in any medium or technology now existing or hereafter invented, in this or any other universe.” You know, the kind of thing that inspired Dick, in Shakespeare’s Henry the Sixth, Part 2, to say, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

But I’ve never seen anything quite like the WWE talent contract.

Oh, sure, I expected Section 9.11, where the wrestler is responsible for all federal, state, local, and Social Security taxes, as well as contributions to private retirement programs and the like. Ditto for liability and worker’s compensation insurance, After all, these are not employees. They are independent contractors. We all know that.

But try wrapping your ironic detachment around Section 9.12(b):

“WRESTLER acknowledges that the participation and activities required by WRESTLER in connection with WRESTLER’s performance in a professional wrestling exhibition may be dangerous and may involve the risk of serious bodily injury. WRESTLER knowingly and freely assumes full responsibility for all such inherent risks as well as those due to the negligence of PROMOTER, other wrestlers or otherwise.”

And Section 9.12(c):

“WRESTLER, on behalf of himself and his heirs, successors, assigns and personal representatives, hereby releases, waives and discharges PROMOTER from all liability to WRESTLER and covenants not to sue PROMOTER for any and all loss or damage on account of injury to any person or property or resulting in serious or permanent injury to WRESTLER or resulting in WRESTLER’s death, whether caused by the negligence of the PROMOTER, other wrestlers or otherwise.”

“… resulting in serious or permanent injury … or resulting in … death …” Well, I guess that covers most of the contingencies.

(In case you’re wondering, this is not Chris Benoit’s contract, which I have not seen. His father, Mike Benoit, did quote to me nearly identical language. Where Mike cited death was in 9.12(b), not 9.12(c); here the wrestler acknowledges risk of “serious bodily injury, including death [emphasis added].”)

This clinic in ruthlessness comes courtesy of the All-American company that has gifted Connecticut-style democracy with the U.S. Senate candidacy of Linda Edwards-McMahon.

***

“TWO WORDS: PUBLIC RELATIONS”

At the WWE corporate website, the final question on the Frequently Asked Questions page about the WWE wellness program is, “Do you provide any assistance to former talent?”

The answer: “WWE is committed to assisting former WWE Talent in receiving appropriate drug rehabilitation and treatment programs and has expanded this offer to include any individuals who had ever performed under contract to WWE during their careers. Letters to former talent are sent out annually offering this assistance.”

The first of these letters were sent in September 2007. Following the Benoit murder-suicide, WWE’s talent-management practices came under scrutiny by both the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. In a letter to more than 500 wrestlers, WWE chairman Vince McMahon stated, “Over the last ten years, an inordinate number of wrestlers have passed away. Some of those deaths may in part have been caused by drugs and alcohol. In an effort to prevent such tragedies in the future, the WWE is willing to pay for drug and/or alcohol rehabilitation at a certified treatment chosen by WWE for any performer with a prior WWE booking contract who may need this service.”

On December 14, 2007, McMahon was interviewed privately by Oversight and Government Reform Committee investigators. (The transcript would not be released until January 2009.)

Asked about the letter to ex-talent, McMahon said that it was “unfortunately about the only thing we can do.” He added: “I don’t like to read about these deaths at all. And some of these people who have overdosed and things of that nature have been friends of mine. It’s upsetting on every conceivable front. So as a not necessarily a responsible, but I think I would like to throw in responsible as well, corporate member of society, notwithstanding again the fact I’m a human being, I don’t know anything else we can do other than to extend that service or whatever to someone who may have a problem.”

What motivated the letter?

“Two words: public relations. That’s it. I do not feel any sense of responsibility for anyone of whatever their age is who has passed along and has bad habits and overdoses for drugs. Sorry, I don’t feel any responsibility for that. Nonetheless, that’s why we’re [sending the letter]. It is a magnanimous gesture.”

Robert Zimmerman, WWE’s vice president for corporate communications, recently told the trade publication Human Resource Executive that four percent of ex-talent had taken up the company on the rehab offer.

One of them was Lanny Kean, an eighties wrestler. Last year, shortly after he left rehab, Kean died of a heart attack in Kentucky, at age 48.

Another ex-WWE wrestler, “Mad Dog” Mike Bell, was featured in his brother Chris Bell’s widely praised 2008 documentary about steroid culture, Bigger, Stronger, Faster. Shortly after the film’s release, Mike Bell checked into a rehab facility in California for alcohol and painkiller addictions. (I don’t know whether this was through the WWE program.) On December 14, 1998, he was found dead there, at age 37.

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